Teen's life celebrated today in the surf
WANT TO GO?
-- WHAT: Sixth annual "Don't Break the Circle of Life" Memorial Paddle-Out. Includes performances by The Gills, the Fort Morgan Slammers and DJ Russell, plus prize drawings.
-- WHEN: 3 to 6 p.m. today. Paddle-out at 5:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Pensacola Beach, near the Gulfside Pavilion.
-- COST: Free.
-- DETAILS: Kim McMahon, 476-3383, or visit www.donate4william.org.
Learn more about organ donation online at www.donatelifeflorida.org.
William McMahon loved the water.
Almost every morning, the Pensacola High School student would rise before dawn to surf at Pensacola Beach, slicing through the waves on his beloved blue-and-yellow board. William's uncle, Russell Rollings, couldn't remember a time when his energetic nephew didn't yearn to surf.
"It was something he always wanted to do," said Rollings, 47, of Pensacola. "He started surfing with me at about 7, and picked it up really quick. He loved it."
The water is where William is remembered best: On May 19, 2005, the 16-year-old died while awaiting a liver transplant. Shortly thereafter, the first "Don't Break the Circle of Life" Memorial Paddle-Out was held at Pensacola Beach.
"It was a way for everyone to celebrate William's life," said Kim McMahon, William's mother. "And we continue to do that and raise awareness for organ donation."
Today, from 3 to 6 p.m., the sixth annual Memorial Paddle-Out will take place near the Gulfside Pier on Pensacola Beach. Surfers will paddle their boards out to form a circle and join hands. On shore, friends and family members will honor William's memory through prayer, live music and stories of the much-loved teen.
They also will honor others who have died waiting for an organ transplant and those who have received the gift of life.
"If I can just get people to talk about organ donation with their families, it's as though I've accomplished something," said Kim McMahon. "More than 106,000 people are on the waiting list, and those are the lucky ones."
Since her son's death, McMahon has been an impassioned champion for organ donation.
She created the William Rollings McMahon Organ Donation Educational Foundation in 2006, and works closely with both the United Network for Organ Sharing and LifeQuest Organ Recovery Services. The Delta airline flight attendant tells her son's story at high schools and colleges across the country.
"It's not a happy ending, but to be honest, that makes it something that people will remember," she said. "I can't tell you how many have been touched by William's story."
It's a story McMahon never imagined she'd be telling.
William was an active, healthy teen when he developed flu-like symptoms during his Christmas break in 2004. In less than a week, he was diagnosed with unexplained liver failure and flown to Shands Hospital in Gainesville in critical condition.
"I couldn't believe it when the doctors said he needed a liver transplant," McMahon said. "We had no history of liver disease in our family. It was shocking."
William received a donated liver on Jan. 2, 2005. After a successful, three-month recovery, the teen returned home and resumed surfing, playing his guitar and riding his unicycle around the neighborhood.
"Things were going really well," McMahon said. "We never imagined it could happen again."
Almost five months after his transplant, William developed acute complications. Given 72 hours to live, he died just 24 hours later, waiting for a new liver.
Maria Copeland, public coordinator with LifeQuest, said William's story packs an emotional wallop.
"It's heartbreaking, but it makes such an impact, especially on teenagers," she said. "Kim and I have told Will's story to more than 10,000 students over the years. And many of them are now organ donors."
Steve Vandergriff, a Jacksonville-based television director, was so moved by McMahon's account that he created a video, "Will 2 Live: The William Rollings McMahon Story."
The 20-minute film, available online at www.donate4william.org, features interviews with the teen's family, friends and physicians, plus personal videos and photos.
Vandergriff, whose father died of liver failure, said he felt as though he came to know William while making the film.
"I shed many tears during the project," he said. "I hope Will's story encourages everyone to consider organ donation. Through others, you can live on."